In Search of a Wild Steelhead

Excerpt from River of the Angry Moon, by Mark Hume and Harvey Thommasen

Published in Canada by Greystone Books, Douglas & McIntyre and in the United States by the University of Washington Press.

A heavy, wet snow has fallen during the night, spreading a humped, white blanket across the estuary. Here and there clumps of tired, blonde grass push through. A flock of mallards bursts from a tidal channel, scattering snow crystals in the air like pollen.  Far out on the flats a drift of trumpeter swans stirs and shifts as an eagle circles overhead. Along the river, as the morning warms, clumps of snow drop from the tree branches, vanishing as they become water. The snow eats the sound of the river as it passes over its stone bed; it eats the sound of the forest.

Driving up the highway, traveling East from Bella Coola, I set out on the last fishing trip of the year. Somehow I know that today I will find a steelhead that is buried somewhere in the river, its heart beating like a drum. In the back of the truck I can hear the tip of my fly rod tapping against the window as it picks up the vibrations of the road. It seems to be chattering with anticipation. Every fishing trip starts with a sense of optimism, but sometimes there is a deeper level of certainty, a predator’s instinct that comes from a vision of a steelhead rising through layers of green water to take your fly. I have seen steelhead stand on their heads to pluck one of my flies from the bottom and I have seen them tilt up to take a floating dry fly with an audible snap of their jaws. I have seen them rise, head, dorsal, tail and I have seen deep, slow glints of silver, far away, as they twisted sideways in the current. I have taken them unseen too, by intuition,  striking for no apparent reason, but finding a fish there.

The dream I have now, however, is of a fish and a rise form that I have never seen. The steelhead materializes over a bed of mossy stones; it rises on a steady diagonal line to intercept my fly, which glows like an orange spark. The river that divides and joins us seems to be made of  sheets of tinted glass, which rotate slowly. When the fish takes the fly, the dream ends. I know that to finish the dream I must find the steelhead and I know that the steelhead is somewhere in the Bella Coola River, waiting for me, as it has been all year.

Few people fish the river in December anymore. There used to be a small but strong run of steelhead in the 12th month, a continuation of the November run, but that stock, like all the others, has dwindled to a point where it is not really worth going out. Still, some do fish and one, I know, found  steelhead this week. A Nuxalk spin fisherman told me, in the quiet way that anglers will sometimes share the most precious information, that he’d just taken a fresh steelhead in a pool known as The Classic.

“Nice fish,” he said. “Big. Silver as chrome.” He held his rough hands far apart. And when he put his hands down the steelhead was gone.

I knew he’d killed the fish, exercising his native right and that was troubling. But  I appreciated the information which needn’t have been shared and which didn’t appear to be in general circulation, at least not yet. It jarred me out of my lethargy and on a cold day with clouds as grey as salmon backs hanging over the mountains, I set out. In search of a wild steelhead.